Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Behar 76 - Modern Slavery - Moral and Ethical Behavior

The parasha talks about the Hebrew slave who sells himself to work for a 'master ' because of economic problems and poverty. The Hebrew slave was not a slave in the generally accepted sense of the word. He was rather an ' indentured servant ', who was not free to resign from his employment.  Because the Hebrew slave feels degraded and has lost most of his self- esteem, the Torah forbids the master to work him like a slave, and subjugate him through hard labor.            לא תעבוד בו עבודת עבד, לא תרדה בו בפרך ויראת מאלוקיך.   You are not allowed to assign him degrading tasks that would be given only to a slave and that highlight his position as a slave like putting on his master's shoes or carrying his master's personal effects to the bathhouse. He is not allowed to  give him futile and unproductive ' busywork ' where the goal is to keep him busy rather than productive , so he feels his servitude and it breaks his body and spirit just like the Egyptian slave masters acted towards the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. It could be simple tasks as boiling water where there is no need for it or giving tasks with no time limit such as keep digging around this tree until I come back. Even if your Hebrew slave thinks there is purpose in what he is doing, but your intention is ' busywork', you should fear God, because God will hold you accountable as He knows what is in your heart.

Although these laws do not apply today,  there are many lessons to be learned that give us guidance and insight as how to interact over whom we may be allowed to exercise authority.  The Hebrew slave himself teaches us that it is better to work rather than to take charity. The question is - how  should we  treat people – such as family members or poor people who live with us in our homes, employees, students and army cadets etc. . . . There is no question that forcing a person against his will to engage in hard and degrading work is not allowed except in the case of criminals. Rashi says that a king or prince must not rule over his people with rigor and coercion. However, where a person is willing to do the work, like in the case of an army cadet who wants to prove his obedience and compliance without having his body and spirit broken, hard and degrading labor would be permitted. He could always quit if he wanted to. The question is where a person is asked by an influential, public figure or a person who has authority,  to do things for him, not in the scope of their working relationship.  The person will usually comply with the request because he cannot say no and usually will feel uncomfortable, embarrassed or not at ease about the request. 

Here , Rabeinu Yona in his work – Sha'arei Teshuvah , part 3:60   on the verse – and 'your brothers, the children of Israel you shall not subjugate him through hard labor ' – says  'that one should not subjugate a fellow man , and if they fear him or are ashamed to violate his word , he should not command him to do anything , great or small , not even to warm up a flask or go on an errand in the city to buy a loaf of bread unless it is according to their will and benefit. But a man who does not behave himself properly may be commanded as desired.'  A person should not take advantage of his status, position or authority, impose on people and try to get people to do things not in the contractual context.

רבינו יונה – שערי תשובה ח:ג- ס 'ובאחיכם בני ישראל איש באחיו לא תרדה בו בפרך ' (ויקרא כה, מו). לא ישתעבד אדם בחבריו, ואם אימתו עליהם או שהם בושים להחל דברו, לא יצוה אותם לעשות קטנה או גדולה, אלא לרצונם ותועלתם, ואפילו להחם צפחת מים או לצאת בשליחותו אל רחוב העיר לקנות עד ככר לחם, אבל אדם שאינו נוהג כשורה מתר לצוותו לכל אשר יחפץ:

There is discussion whether Rabeinu Yona is saying that a person transgresses the negative commandment of not subjugating a fellow man 
- ' ובאחיכם בני ישראל איש באחיו לא תרדה בו בפרך'        
or is he only talking about moral and ethical behavior which in a sense is worse than merely transgressing a negative command. Here we are talking about character, compassion, morality, de'rech eretz = the right way to treat people which preceded the giving of the Torah.

The Rambam in his halachic work says something similar. He talks about the right to subjugate a heathen slave with forced hard labor where the purpose is to enforce discipline, absolute obedience and compliance, but if that is not necessary , one should be compassionate and  generous in one's behavior and act in a wise and intelligent way,  be merciful and just, not weigh heavily on him  the burden of your demands , he should listen to the  concerns of his  slave and  treat him well like Job ,so he will look up to you ' like the eyes of servants unto their masters' hand and the eyes of the maid unto her mistress' hand '– Psalms 123:2.One should follow the example of Abraham , keep the righteous and merciful laws of the Torah and try to emulate God who is merciful to all his creations.

רמב"ם הלכות עבדים ט:ח  -  מותר לעבוד בעבד כנעני בפרך ואע"פ שהדין כך מדת חסידות ודרכי חכמה שיהיה אדם רחמן ורודף צדק ולא יכביד עולו על עבדו ולא יצר לו ויאכילהו וישקהו מכל מאכל ומכל משתה חכמים הראשונים היו נותנין לעבד מכל תבשיל ותבשיל שהיו אוכלין ומקדימין מזון הבהמות והעבדים לסעודת עצמן הרי הוא אומר כעיני עבדים אל יד אדוניהם כעיני שפחה אל יד גבירתה וכרן לא יבזהו ביד ולא בדברים לעבדות מסרן הכתוב לא לבושה ולא ירבה עליו צעקה וכעס אלא ידבר עמו בנחת וישמע טענותיו וכן מפורש בדרכי איוב הטובים שהשתבח בהן אם אמאס משפט עבדי ואמתי בריבם עמדי הלא בבטן עושני עשהו ויכוננו ברחם אחד ואין האכזריות והעזות מצויה אלא בעכו"ם עובדי ע"ז אבל זרעו של אברהם אבינו והם ישראל שהשפיע להם הקב"ה טובת התורה וצוה אותם בחקים ומשפטים צדיקים רחמנים הם על הכל וכן במדותיו של הקב"ה שצונו להדמות בהם הוא אומר ורחמיו על כל מעשיו וכל המרחם מרחמין עליו שנאמר ונתן לך רחמים ורחמך והרבך:

As parents, spouses, teachers and employers we should be aware of the teachings of the Rambam and Rabeinu Yona and focus on cooperation, collaboration, inspiring others and supporting their autonomy rather than focusing on compliance and obedience, and treating people in a way maybe more appropriate for a heathen slave. We should solve problems in a collaborative way addressing both our and the others' concerns including the concerns of children. We should always ask ourselves if the tasks we give children are in themselves worth doing and important and are not perceived and experienced as ' busywork ' or unnecessary burden imposed on the child. The Steipler responded to his daughter - the reason I did not wake you up is that my job is not to impose on people , even though it is your job to help and honor a parent.When we bring kids into the decision making process and reflecting on what is needed to run a caring and efficient home or developing a love for learning, we will find allies to work with, rather than try to control and motivate them with carrots or sticks. We really have to ask ourselves if what we ask is really for their benefit and meeting their needs or are we more concerned with our need for control. Teachers should avoid asking kids for e.g. to do personal errands such as going to the kiosk for them. Homework is one area which is very problematic as the research, especially for junior school shows no benefits for homework, overwhelms struggling kids and as 'busywork'  removes the joy of learning for high achievers. Even reading for pleasure loses its appeal when children are told how much, or for how long, they must do it. Treating kids with respect and taking them seriously is not only for them, but will impact on our efforts to emulate the ways of God.


  1. You are learning important lessons about how we treat others from the laws of the Hebrew slave. But the laws of the Canaanite slave are not nearly so benign. Would you then say that the way you recommend we treat others only applies to Jews?

  2. Thanks for your comment - In a sense we treat a Hebrew slave better than an ordinary person - whoever buys a slave buys a master for himself . With a Canaanite slave , we need to take into account what the Rambam says about how to treat him which is based on the Torah's guiding principles
    The Rabeinu Yona and especially the Rambam whose words are brought in a shortened form in the Shulchan Aruch remind us that while we follow Halacha, what guides our behavior , informs our values and helps us set limits and boundaries are the guiding principles which the Rambam and Shulchan Aruch and of course the Torah share with us. Often, in conflict situations we focus on the din in the Shulchan Aruch and especially our rights and forget what Hashem really wants from us. R' Isaac Sher explains that the difference between going to a secular court of law , even if they judge according to Torah law , is that people go there to defend their rights and win , while people who go to Beit Din should go with the intention to find out how Hashem wants them to behave in this situation. We are told that the Beit Ha'mikdash was destroyed because people followed the din of the Torah instead of going – לפנים משורת הדיו. It is the ' guiding principles ' which enable us to go ' לפנים משורת הדין - not easy.